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The Believe Me book tour took me to the University of Southern California (USC) on Tuesday. In this case, the tour doubled as the inaugural Jack Crossley Lecture on Ethics and Religion at USC. Crossley, who I had a chance to meet over dinner (he regaled me with stories about his experiences as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary in the early 1950s), was a longtime religion professor at USC. One of his former students endowed the lecture.
Thanks to Cavan Concannon of the USC School of Religion for the invitation and for the School of Religion and USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture for sponsoring the event. In addition to Cavan, I want to thank Lisa Bitel, Lynn Swartz Dodd, Rongdao Lai, Jessica Marglin, Lori Meeks, Diane Winston, and Arjun Nair for their wonderful hospitality during the day. It was also great to finally meet longtime TWOILH supporter Ron Schooler and his wife Nathana. Thanks for coming!
Stay tuned for more information on our next stop on the tour!
On Tuesday I will be giving the inaugural Jack Crossley Lecture on Ethics and Religion at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Learn more here. I hope to see you there!
I’m on the road (or in the air) today trying to find my way back to Pennsylvania through the snow, but I wanted to say a very quick word about last night’s lecture in Colorado Springs.
Jeff Scholes of the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs (UCCS) Philosophy Department and Director of the Center for Religious Diversity and Public Life was a wonderful host. The UCCS History Department also sponsored the event and I am pretty sure my friend Paul Harvey was the point person on that front. We had a great turnout for a lecture titled “The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.” Thanks for everyone who came out last night and I am sorry I could not hang around longer to answer all of your questions and here are all of your stories. Feel free to follow this blog or my twitter feed to keep the conversation going!
“I am declaring Believe Me as one of the most important books to be published in 2018 and predicting that it will remain one of the most important books for many a year.”
Thank you Byron Borger!
I am happy to join Alan Jacobs, Al Tizon, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, Barbara Melosh, Lauren Winner, Gerry McDermott, Reggie McNeal, Michael Card, Alan Noble, Diana Butler Bass, Tremper Longman, N. T. Wright, Walter Brueggemann, Fleming Rutledge, Os Guinness, Mark Labberton, and Jonah Goldberg, among others, on the Hearts & Minds Bookstore “Best Books of 2018” list!
Here is a taste of what Byron has to say about Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:
Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump John Fea (Eerdmans) $24.99 I have written at great length — in our local newspaper, in BookNotes, and on my social media space — that the unqualified conservative Christian support for President Trump is inexplicable. For a dozen reasons that are nearly incontrovertible, it is clear that the President is a bad man and a bad leader. By no reasonable metrics can we be glad for his temperament, his antics, or his odd-ball style of governance. Good people of good faith can disagree with the “lesser of two evils” sorts of complicated choices we have when voting and can line up on different sides of the isles as we watch the sausage getting made. But all serious Christians must, at least, have some sort of Biblically-informed, Christianly conceived, spiritual-driven, public theology. We must have “the mind of Christ” and allow the Scriptural worldview to illumine our views of contemporary issues and the nature of law and politics and citizenship. Evangelicals, who love Jesus, insist on conversion and holiness, and Christ’s Kingship over all of life and regard the Bible with a for-all-of-life authority. We dare not say, as Jerry Falwell Jr. recently did, “I don’t look to Jesus for my politics.” Evangelicals worthy of the name may disagree about many implications that flow from a Christian political vision, but we dare not say that.
And so, it is essential to try to figure out the coherence, if there is any, of the so-called Christian right. Those that know me know that this has been huge priority for me for decades and decades and I have invested much personal energy of my life time to help create conversations around the meaning of the Lordship of Christian for our citizenship and public lives. Sometimes I find it necessary to challenge the right and the left and I often try to graciously insist that we should have no fundamental loyalties to the conservatives or the liberals. For whatever reason, these days, I find a much greater interest in the Bible and Jesus from the progressive side than from most on the side of the Christian right, and that is different than it was a generation ago, and feels exceptionally ironic.
Still, as black evangelist Tony Evans once said, when Jesus comes back he will not be riding a donkey or an elephant. Or, more seriously, as David Koyzis writes, we must get at the deep philosophical influences of the Enlightenment and French Revolutions to understand our current political divides. (See his brilliant, deep Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologiesfor a sophisticated explication of this rejection of the right and the left as we seek for a uniquely Christian third way.)
Which is a long way of saying why I am declaring Believe Meas one of the most important books to be published in 2018 and predicting that it will remain one of the most important books for many a year.
Look: I don’t agree with all of the analysis Dr. Fea brings, and I wish he had covered stuff that he misses. In this sense it may not be utterly adequate but it is nonetheless the best book in recent years on the new itineration of the Christian right in the Trump years. Fea is a respected historian and brings his discerning critical eyes to what he calls “the court evangelicals.” There is no other book like it.
Good historians such as George Marsden have given big accolades to Believe Me. For instance, the always measured Mark Noll writes:
John Fea’s timely and sobering book shows convincingly how legitimate concerns from white evangelical Protestants about a rapidly secularizing American culture metastasized into a fear-driven brew of half-truths, fanciful nostalgia, misplaced Christian nationalism, ethical hypocrisy, and political naiveté–precisely, that is, the mix that led so many white evangelicals not only to cast their votes for Donald Trump but also to regard him as a literal godsend.
Few contemporary Christian thinkers and advocates for a balanced public theology are as wise and balanced as Richard Mouw. His own memoir is the Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Groundand he knows much about hearing various viewpoints and showing “uncommon decency” as his book on civility puts it. And about Fea and Believe Me, Mouw says this:
While the significant support for Donald Trump by white evangelicals has been the stuff of headlines, there has been little serious probing of the deeper factors at work. John Fea here gives us what we need, with his insightful tracing of the theological-spiritual road that has brought us to this point. A wise and important book!
…Fea deserves a, extra award medal for all he’s done promoting conversation around this book. He has helped us understand the contemporary interface of Christian faith and modern politics and while it isn’t the last word, it is a very, very important contribution. I’m glad other outlets more important than BookNotes have named this as one of the outstanding books of 2018.
Listen to Jana Riess, a senior columnist for Religion News Service:
It would be enough for John Fea to marshal his considerable prowess as a historian in proving how evangelicals have been propelled by fear, nostalgia, and the pursuit of power, as he does so compellingly in this book. But he also speaks here as a theologian and an evangelical himself, eloquently pointing toward a better gospel way. This is a call to action for evangelicals to move beyond the politics of fear to become a ‘faithful presence’ in a changing world.
Thanks again, Byron. If you don’t have a copy of Believe Me, order it here.
An author at Daily Kos writes:
….Some people believe so strongly in the Mythic Trump they forgive Trump the Man for family separations at the border, a range of criminal acts including running a fraudulent university and a fraudulent charity, selling the US to Russia, grabbing pussy, cozying up to tyrants, and surrounding himself with knaves and dunces. And that is only a partial list.
The question is can anything be done to shatter the myth?
And we all know the facts will never be enough to convince these sort of believers of anything.
I have chosen two articles that should give us hope and that point the way toward separating the man from the myth.
In the first link three sociologists explain their research into what happens when you make voters aware of how much money Donnie got from daddy. Perceptions of Trump’s ability to empathize drop drastically when voters learn what a spoiled rich kid he was and is and will always be. And politicians who aren’t seen as empathetic lose.
In the second a historian reveals the real roots of Trump’s power, Fake History. There is an organized attempt to convince certain Evangelical Christians that the framers of the US Constitution intended the US to be a White Christian state. It is that dubious and frankly fallacious contention that made Trump the President of the United States.
John Fea has made a start on teaching real history to Evangelicals. The article is a cry for help signal boosting his message. We would all be wise to listen and help.
Because the alternative is an unimpeachable, unindictable President.
Read the entire piece here.
The Believe Me book tour visited Harrisonburg, Virginia last week. Student reporters Jake Meyers and Allie Weaver of The Weather Vane report:
Dr. John Fea had three main targets when he wrote his book “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump”: white evangelicals who voted for the current president, white evangelicals who did not, and everyone else. A history professor at Messiah College, Fea presented at the University Colloquium in the MainStage Theater on Wednesday, Jan. 16. He began by describing Election Night 2016 from his point of view, reliving the shock and defeat he felt as the results rolled in. What happened? The point of this book was to explain how 81 percent of evangelicals arrived at the conclusion that shaped their voting decision.
Fea, a self-identified evangelical Christian, based his argument on three contrasts found in that community: fear over hope, power over humility, and nostalgia over history.
“Fear is not a good place for Christians to be dwelling,” he said. Going back as far as the 17th century, fear in the U.S. has been associated with political or social change. Americans decided that their country was the greatest and “baptized” it as a Christian nation. Any change to this narrative induced fear and a strong backlash. In the South during the 1800s, white evangelicals built a “Christian” society on the backs of slavery and white supremacy, and when this way of life was threatened, there were two responses: the Civil War and a complex theological defense of their way of life. “Both of these were driven by fear,” he argued.
The pattern continued; things changed and evangelicals grew fearful. Immigrants arrived and the Supreme Court overturned segregation and legalized abortion. The “Christian” nation was falling apart, and the election of President Obama only intensified this “perfect storm.” Here, Fea invited the gathering to empathize with evangelicals. Under the Obama administration, gay marriage went from illegal to legalized. When fearful, people turn to political strongmen to lead them. Enter Donald Trump.
Fea pointed out how Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” played off the nostalgia and fear that many of his supporters felt about the past. Associate Professor Ji Eun Kim said, “Depending on who you are and what you advocate, America in the past was either great or far from being great. Paying close attention to the foundations, underlying values, or any prejudice and biases that shape our view of history, would be much needed to address any concerns.” Because many of Trump’s evangelical supporters felt nostalgia for the past, their fear led them to turn to Trump and his promise to, “Make America Great Again.”
Read the rest here.
This student newspaper was generally sympathetic. This was not the case with a writer for the student newspaper at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana.
Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 28, 2019
Here some context from
I have written about these Bible classes before. So has Southern Methodist University professor Mark Chancey, who is an expert on such classes.
I would refer you to these posts:
A post on Kentucky’s attempt to start Bible classes in public schools. It draws from my own work on the Bible in America, including The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2015).
A post on Mark Chancey’s work.
Finally, I have written extensively about this idea of “turning back” in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
I have been making this case now since Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump was published in June 2018. It has now become relevant again in light of Covington Catholic High School boys wearing MAGA hats at the Lincoln Memorial last weekend. (I wrote about this event here and here and here).
Here are a few places where I have made the case that “Make America Great Again” is a morally problematic phrase:
“Why white evangelicals voted for Trump: Fear, power and nostalgia” (Religion News Service).
Of course my most thorough case is made here:
John Gehring is Catholic program director for Faith in Public Life. In his recent piece at Commonweal he hopes that Covington Catholic School might view what happened last weekend at the Lincoln Memorial as a “teachable moment.” Here is a taste of his excellent piece:
After watching the longer video, it’s hard for me to square Phillips’s claim that the white students were going to attack the black men. The students were clearly agitated after being cursed at and ridiculed, but they were not advancing aggressively toward the men. But I was not there and so can’t speak to the fear others felt. Either way, Phillips may well have been right in sensing a potentially escalating situation. While he later explained that his movement toward the group of teenagers was meant to separate the young men from the Hebrew Israelites, in the heat of the moment there is no way the students could have known this, since Phillips never speaks or tries to explain what he is doing. No matter what happened before the moment seen in that segment of the video that went viral, once the two groups came together the students clearly acted with disrespect toward Phillips, displaying an arrogance, ignorance, and sense of superiority all too common among students at largely white prep schools. I wrote about my own experience with the attitudes, cultures, and norms prevalent in that kind of culture a few months ago, as the Brett Kavanaugh hearings unfolded: not as a sweeping indictment of all private schools, but as a reminder that privileged places rarely reflect on their own status in the world because the world is designed for and caters to them. Culture is the water we swim in each day. We don’t see it or question it unless we’re forced to open our eyes.
It’s not a revelation that people can watch the same video or review the same evidence and come away with different conclusions. Our life experiences, race, gender, and sexuality don’t determine who we are, but often influence what we see, omit, prioritize, and categorize. What you observe in this video might have less to do with a camera angle or length of footage than the interpretive lens you bring to issues, a lens that formed long before this incident. The challenge we all face, particularly white men, is this: How do we interrogate our own biases and blind spots?
I worry it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have these tough conversations, harder to slow down, and harder to think before we open rhetorical fire. Everyone knows social media exacerbates this problem. We live in a time when the news cycle never stops, when instant reaction is demanded. Twitter is often less a virtual public square in which substantive ideas are exchanged and debated than a performance space where we showcase our polished outrage and virtue. Instead of encouraging humility, empathy, and reflection, we’re celebrated for our speed, hot takes, and how many ideological opponents we can slay in 280 characters. I’m guilty of not always having the discipline to stop feeding this insatiable beast. Like others who have confessed their own haste on social media in recent days, I could have waited longer before tweeting about this incident and given more space to filling in the picture. But conservatives and MAGA bros who want to lecture liberals or dunk on so-called “PC mobs,” or who think these Catholic students come away from this as victims, need to step back. In aligning themselves with a demagogue who has boasted about assaulting a woman, mocked a disabled reporter, called a sitting member of Congress “Pocahontas,” and said there was blame “on both sides” of a bloody white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, they’re perpetuating a system and culture that celebrates the abuse of power. Make America Great Again hats are not KKK hoods, but you don’t exactly have to hide racism and nativism when the most powerful man in the world gives energy to those forces. Any principal who thinks it’s appropriate for students to wear MAGA clothing to a pro-life rally has thought very little about how this president debases human dignity on a near-daily basis. More broadly, prolife groups that have cozied up to Trump—while his administration caged immigrant kids and his Environmental Protection Agency lets polluters spew toxins that are dangerous to pregnant women—undermine the credibility of the prolife cause.
Once the media spotlight moves on from this latest viral moment, where do we go? Covington Catholic High School and every school now have the opportunity to use this episode to do better. Teach history—including the church’s complicity in white supremacy over the centuries—in a way that helps young people connect the dots between the past and present. Most Catholics, no matter their age, are uninformed about our own institution’s role in exploitation and oppression. “Catholic parishes rarely examine the church’s record of actively participating in the federal government’s conquest and colonization of Native Americans and the West, part of the church’s effort in the 19th and 20th centuries to gain mainstream acceptance in America,” William S. Cossen wrote in the Washington Post last week. Reckoning with this uncomfortable past, he writes, “is essential for coming to terms with the injustices faced by indigenous people both in history and in the 21st century.”
Read the entire piece at Commonweal.
This whole debate seems to come down to this: If you do not think MAGA hats and shirts are offensive, or believe that it is just fine if a Catholic school allows its students to wear MAGA stuff at a public event and get in the face of a Native American man trying to diffuse a situation, then you will support the boys and think that they did nothing wrong. If you think that MAGA hats and shirts are offensive because the entire phrase “Make America Great Again” is morally problematic (as I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump), then you will criticize the boys.
But I would take this a step further. If I had a son who was carrying on like these boys–taking off their shirts, doing racist tomahawk chops, or mocking someone in public–I would bring him home and take him to the woodshed. I don’t care who provoked him. I would also be furious with the school and its chaperones for allowing the boys to behave in this way.
An excerpt from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:
If you picked up this book and have made it this far, you will not be surprised that I think about evangelical political engagement from the perspective of a historian. While we always need to be careful about taking lessons from the “foreign country” of the past and applying them to contemporary issues, we certainly should not ignore our natural inclination to find a usable past. What kind of historical examples can we find of Christians living faithfully–and engaging politically–from positions located outside the corridors of power and privilege?
In June 2017, I spent ten days with my family and several colleagues from Messiah College traveling through the American South on a civil rights movement bus tour. Our trip took us to some of the most important sites and cities of the movement. We made stops in Greensboro, Atlanta, Albany, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Memphis , and Nashville. Along the way we spent time with some of the veterans of the movement. In Atlanta we heard from Juanita Jones Abernathy, the wife and co-laborer of Ralph Abernathy, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest associates. In Albany we sang civil rights songs with Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original Freedom Singers. In Selma we met Joanne Bland, a local activist who, at the age of eleven, participated in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches. In Birmingham, we talked with Carolyn Maul McKinstry and Denise McNair. McKinstry was fifteen years old when she survived the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. That explosion took the life of McNair’s sister, whom she never had a chance to meet. In Nashville, we listened to the inspirational stories of Ernest “Rip” Patton , one of the early freedom riders, and Kwame Leonard, one of the movement’s behind-the-scenes organizers.
As I processed everything that I learned on the “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights” bus tour, I kept returning to thoughts about the relationship between religion and politics. Donald Trump had been in office for under five months, but my anger and frustration upon learning that 81 percent of my fellow evangelicals had voted for him were still fresh. As I listened to the voices of the movement veterans, walked the grounds that they had walked, and saw the photographs, studied the exhibits, and watched the footage, it was clear that I was witnessing a Christian approach to politics that was very different from the one that catapulted Trump into the White House. Hope, humility, and a responsible use of American history defined the political engagement and social activism of the civil rights movement.
Those who participated in the civil rights movement had much to fear: bombs, burning crosses, billy clubs, death threats, water hoses, police dogs, and lynch mobs–to name a few. They feared for their lives of their families and spent every day wondering whether they would still be around to continue the fight the next day. For these reasons, many African Americans, understandably, did not participate in the movement and prevented their children from getting involved. The danger was very real.
Martin Luther King Jr. knew this. When we visited the old Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church where King was baptized and where he (and his father) served as pastor, his final sermon, the one he delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, was playing over the speakers. King was in Memphis to encourage sanitation workers fighting for better pay and improved working conditions. I sat in the back pew and listened:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing anything. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
It was a message of hope. Because of his faith, God had given him–and the men and women of the movement he led–all the strength they would need to continue the struggle. King made himself available to do the Lord’s will. Now he was looking forward. Was he talking ab out his eternal life in what now seems like prophetic fashion, or was he talking about God working out his purposes on earth? No matter: King was confident in God’s power to work out his will. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” An assassins bullet took King’s life the next day…but the movement went on.
Can evangelicals recover this confidence in God’s power–not just his wrath against their enemies but in his ability to work out his purposes for good? Can they recover hope? The historian Christopher Lasch once wrote this: “Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicker will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to most who lack it. ” I saw this kind of hope in every place we visited on our trip. It was not mere optimism that things would get better if only we could elect the right candidates. Rather, it was a view of this world, together with an understanding of the world to come, forged amid suffering and pain. Not everyone would make it to the mountaintop on this side of eternity , but God’s purposes would be worked out, and eventually they would be able to understand these purposes–if not in this life, surely in the world to come. The people in the movement understood that laws, social programs, even local and voluntary action, would only get them so far. Something deeper was needed.
There was something kingdom-oriented going on in these Southern cities. I saw this kind of hope in the eyes of Rip Patton as he sat with us in the Nashville Public Library and explained why (and how) he had such a “good time” singing while incarcerated with other freedom riders in Parchman Prison in Jackson, Mississippi. I heard this kind of hop e in the voice of Rutha Mae Harris as she led us in “This Little Light of Mine” and “Ain’t Gonna Turn Me’ Round” from the front of the sanctuary of the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church in Albany. As I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, I wondered if I could ever muster the courage of John Lewis and Joanne Bland as they marched into the fact of terror on Bloody Sunday. Such audacity requires hope.
It is nonsensical to talk about the civil rights movement in terms of political power, because even at the height of the movement’s influence, African Americans did not possess much political power. Yes, the movement had its leaders, and they did have time in the national spotlight. But when movement leaders entered the “court,” they were usually there to speak truth to the king, not to flatter him. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was willing to break with Lyndon Johnson when he disagreed with him on the Vietnam War, even if it meant losing access to the most powerful man on earth.
Most of all, though, the civil rights movement was shaped by people of humble means who lived ordinary lives in ordinary neighborhoods. Many of them never expected to step onto a national stage or receive credit for leading the greatest social movement in American history. These ordinary men and women fought injustice wherever God had placed them. And they offer us a beautiful illustration of what James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence”:
A theology of faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places that they experience directly….the call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us–community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which these constituted….It is here, through the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of people with whom we are in long-term and close relation–family, neighbors, co-workers, and community–where we find authenticity as a body of believers. It is here where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy….
I thought about Hunter’s words as I stood in the hot Selma sun and listened to Joanne Bland explain to use the significance of a small and crumbling patch of pavement in a playground behind Brown AME church. This was the exact spot, she told us, where the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches began. For Bland, who was raised in the housing complex across the street from the church, this was a sacred place.
The humility on display during the civil rights movement was just as countercultural then as it is now. This is usually the case with nonviolent protests. Those who participated thought of themselves not as individuals but as part of a movement larger than themselves. Rip Patton was a twenty-one-year old music major at Tennessee State University when he met Jim Lawson in 1959. Lawson trained Patton (and others) in nonviolent protest. Soon Patton found himself seated at a lunch counter in downtown Nashville, where he would be spit on, punched , and covered in ketchup, mustard, salt, and water. Patton did not retaliate because he had been educated in the spiritual discipline necessary for a situation like this. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a political and social movement, something akin to a religious revival.
The civil rights movement never spoke the language of hate or resentment. In fact, its Christian leaders saw that all human beings were made in the image of God and sinners in need of God’s redemptive love. Many in the movement practiced with theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described as “the spiritual discipline against resentment.” They saw that those who retaliated violently or with anger against injustice were only propagating injustices of their own . Instead, the spiritual discipline against resentment unleashed a different kind of power–the power of the cross and the resurrection. This kind of power could provide comfort amid suffering and a faithful gospel witness in the world. The Mississippi voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said it best: ” The white man’s afraid he’ll be treated like he’s been treating the Negroes, but I couldn’t carry that much hate. It wouldn’t have solved any problems for me to hate white because they hate me. Oh, there’s so much hate! Only God has kept the Negro sane.”
As we saw in chapter 5, many African Americans find American nostalgia troubling because they recognize that there is little in our nation’s history to yearn for. The leaders of the civil rights movement could not make appeals to a golden age. They could only look forward with hope….When they did turn to the past, it was often an appeal to ideals such as liberty, freedom, or justice, ideals written down in our nation’s sacred documents that had yet to be applied to them completely. History was a means by which they challenged white Americans to collectively come face to face with the moral contradiction at the heart of the republic. As King said in his April 1968 sermon in Memphis, “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.'” As I listened to to the veterans of the civil rights movement tell their stories, I was surprised how often I heard them describe America as a “Christian nation.” But this was not the Christian nationalist nostalgia of David Barton, Robert Jeffress, or the court evangelicals. It was a gesture of what they hoped the United States might become….
The early civil rights movement needed its leaders to have a working knowledge of American history, but these leaders did not use the past as fodder for a national reclamation project. They knew there was little to reclaim. Instead, they used the past as a means of moving forward in hope and calling the church and the nation to live up to the principles they were built on. While many white Americans today succumb to the narcissism that tells them that their place in the story of the nation is not worth serious reflection, King and his followers had a clear-eyed understanding of the past. They desperately wanted to be grafted into this imperfect but hopeful story, and to contribute their gifts and talents to the writing of future chapters of that story.
Perhaps some of you missed it. Iowa congressman Steve King, in an interview with the New York Times, said this: “White nationalists, white supremacist, Western Civilization–how did that language become offensive?”
King later tried to back away from the statement, but it was too little, too late. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy removed King from the House Judiciary and Agriculture Committees earlier this week and he was almost censured. King’s remarks were the latest in a long career defined by racist and nativist comments.
Not everyone is happy with what McCarthy, the House Republicans, and Congress have done to King. Right Wing Watch has brought to my attention news of a group of Christian Right leaders who are supporting King. The group is led by Janet Porter, a Christian Right activist who served as the spokesperson for Roy Moore’s 2017 Alabama Senate race. Porter is asking Christian Right leaders to sign a letter to Kevin McCarthy. Here is the text of that letter:
Dear Leader McCarthy,
We are appalled that Republican leadership would choose to believe a liberal news organization famous for their bias over an outstanding member of Congress who has served the people of Iowa and the United States honorably and faithfully for 16 years.
If Congressman Steve King believed and stood by the outrageous misquote of the New York Times, then the actions taken against him would have been warranted, but the opposite is true.
Unlike North Korea, we in the United States are “innocent until proven guilty” and hold to the principles of Western Civilization, as Rep. King so admirably does. The foundational principle begins with the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” These are the principles to which Rep. King was referring and which he has championed for more than two decades of public service.
Don’t make the fatal mistake of turning the reins of the U.S. Congress over to the liberal media, allowing them to target, misquote, and falsely brand any member of Congress they wish to remove.
We call on you to do the right thing as Minority Leader: issue a public apology and reinstate Rep. King to his committee assignments. If we don’t stand with this good man against the media-manufactured assault today, none of us will be safe from it tomorrow.
The Christian Right leaders who signed this letter include:
I discuss Dobson, Strang, and Wallnau in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
This letter may be more revealing for the people who DID NOT sign it, including Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Ralph Reed, Gary Bauer, Franklin Graham, Paula White, Johnnie Moore, Eric Metaxas, and other court evangelicals.
Given my history in publishing, people often ask me for help with their book projects. One of the first things I ask them: What is your goal? What do you want to achieve by publishing the book?
“Getting it out there in the world” is too vague. With publishing, as in many aspects of life, specific is better and more attainable.
It requires hard thinking to make a list of what success will look like for you, but my advice is to do this exercise before the book is published, or even as you start work on the manuscript. Some things will be within your control. Others you can only hope for. If, on that list, you have items that are not measurable in terms of sales or money, I say that’s OK. You get to define what success looks like for you.
Read the entire piece here.
So how do I measure the success of my books? It depends on the book:
The Way of Improvement Leads Home: I wrote this to establish myself as an early American historian. I thus published it with a respectable university press. I hope it makes some small contribution to our understanding of the Enlightenment in America. In that sense, I think it has been a success. But, much to my surprise, the story of Philip Vickers Fithian seems to captivate people. Dozens of people tell me that they cried at the end of the book. K-12 teachers have pushed me to write a grade-school edition of Fithian’s life. So, in this case, the book has been successful for reasons I did not expect when I wrote it.
Confessing History: I edited this book with close friends Jay Green and Eric Miller. The fact that we were able to work on this book together makes it a success in my mind. But I also hope the book has established me as a scholar writing out of a particular tradition. In this sense, it has been successful. I think we are asking our readers–Christian undergraduates and graduate students, Christian faculty members, and students of historiography–to join us in a conversation about the relationship between Christian faith and the historian’s vocation.
Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: This book was written for a popular audience. I think it has been successful for two reasons. First, it has brought historical thinking to a much-politicized debate on American identity. Second, it has provided college professors who are interested in this debate with a text to assign to their students.
Why Study History? I measure the success of this book by how often it is assigned in history survey courses, introduction to history courses, and historiography or methods courses. I am encouraged by how many college and high school history departments are using it.
The Bible Cause: In terms of sales, this has been my most unsuccessful book. Institutional histories are tough to sell. The value of the book is its modest contribution to American religious history. It will sit on library shelves and I hope it will be consulted whenever a scholar’s work intersects with the history of the Bible in America.
Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump: This book will be successful if it: 1). Gets my fellow evangelicals to think differently about their support for Donald Trump. 2). Helps anti-Trump evangelicals to dialogue with their pro-Trump friends. 3). Helps the larger community of scholars, journalists, politicos, and pundits understand why so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. So far I think the book has been successful on points 2 and 3. Has it been successful as it relates to point 1? Only time will tell.
I am honored to deliver the inaugural Jack Crossley Lecture at the University of Southern California School of Religion. Learn more here.
We are back after an extended holiday break! I hope all our readers were able to spend some quality time with friends and family over the holidays. I always look forward to the holidays as a time of relaxation, worship, family-time, and getting caught-up on reading. Here are a few things that happened over break:
On Christmas Eve I visited Byron Borger at Hearts and Minds Bookstore in Dallastown, PA. I bought some books for members of my family and I bought some books for myself:
I am almost done with Wolterstorff’s memoir. It is excellent.
On December 26, 2018, I was quoted in Carol Kuruvilla’s piece at the Huffington Post: “Americans Trust Clergy Less Than Ever, Gallup Poll Finds.”
On December 30, 2018, I published a piece at History News Network: “Trump’s White Evangelicals are Nostalgic for an American Past that Never Existed for Blacks and Others.” Most of the piece comes from my Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.
I learned that my piece “Why is Christian America Supporting Donald Trump?” was one of History News Network’s most popular posts for 2018.
On January 2, 2019, I was quoted in Greg Sargent’s Washington Post op-ed, “The walls around Trump are crumbling. Evangelicals may be his last resort.”
On January 2, 2019, I contributed to Jerome Socolovsky’s National Public Radio story: “Evangelicals Seek Detente With Mideast Muslim Leaders As Critics Doubt Motives.”
And don’t forget our coverage of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. We have a great team of correspondents and will begin posting on January 3, 2019. Stay tuned!
The Johnson Amendment is the news again. As you may recall, the Christian Right has been trying to remove Lyndon Johnson’s 1954 addition to the tax code for a long time. The amendment bars churches (and other non-profit entities) from endorsing political candidates.
But since we now have this debate every time Congress has to pass a tax bill, let’s at least be honest about what is really at stake here.
If, hypothetically, Congress ever does repeal the Johnson Amendment, a lot could go wrong, and probably would. Democrat-aligned groups would demand that bureaucrats censor sermons. Republican advocates would have to answer for why they cheered as churches devolved into Super PACs.
As Maggie Garrett, vice president for public policy at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, recently told me, “Changing the law would allow endorsement activity to permeate throughout tax-exempt organizations, transforming them from charitable organizations to tax-exempt partisan campaign organizations.”
The question is, in short: How much more damaging and obnoxious do we want politicized religion to become in this country?
We already live in a world in which Trump’s most eager evangelical lap dog, Southern Baptist megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, hosts the Fox News All-America Christmas Special from his church. This event gives us the obscene spectacle of Trump disciple and hack journalist Todd Starnes standing in the pulpit where Baptist legends like George W. Truett and W.A. Criswell once preached.
The Johnson Amendment works great, protecting us from our worst instincts in religion and politics, and saving us from ourselves. Well, most of us.
Read the entire piece here.
Here is what I wrote about The Johnson Amendment in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:
Another religious-liberty issue that concerns many of the court evangelicals is the clause in the IRS tax code commonly referred to as the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment is a part of the code that forbids tax-exempt organizations such as churches from endorsing political candidates. Since 1954, when the Johnson Amendment was added to the code, only one church has ever lost its tax-exempt status for violating it. Trump first learned about the amendment during some of his early meetings with evangelicals in Trump Tower. Since that time he has become fixated on it: he realized that the IRS would not allow evangelical pastors to endorse him or any other candidate without losing their tax-exempt status. Trump promised his evangelical supporters that, if elected, he would bring an end to the Johnson Amendments.
For many evangelicals and their followers, Trump fulfilled that promise on May 4, 2017. In an outdoor ceremony a the White House, with court evangelicals and other religious leaders by his side, Donald Trump issued an executive order on religious liberty. Section 2 of the order included the statement: “In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective.” The statement was a reference to the Johnson Amendment without explicitly naming it. After he signed the order, Trump told the faith leaders present: “You’re now in a position to say what you want to say. . . no one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”
Court evangelicals cheered the new order, but in reality it did absolutely nothing to change the Johnson Amendment. The order was little more than a symbolic gesture meant to appease evangelicals and keep their support. What may have been a public relations victory for Trump and the court evangelicals did not amount to anything because the president does not have the authority to change the tax code–that job belongs to Congress. And when Congress did overhaul the tax code in December 2017, the Johnson Amendment was not removed.
But the attempts to repeal the Johnson Amendment exposed something deeper: a serious flaw in the way that many conservative evangelicals think about the relationship between church and state. According to a 2012 poll, eighty-six percent of evangelical pastors believed that clergy should not endorse political candidates from the pulpit. Those who do want to endorse candidates from the pulpit, and have turned the Johnson Amendment into a political issue, seem more concerned about freedom of speech than they are about the way this kind of political partisanship undermines their gospel witness. There is an old Baptist saying about religion and politics that goes something like this: “If you mix horse manure and ice cream, it doesn’t do much to the manure, but it sure does ruin the ice cream.” When the government starts telling evangelical pastors what they can and cannot preach in terms of theology, biblical interpretation, or ethics (even sexual ethics), we have a problem; but the Johnson Amendment is not this kind of problem. Evangelicals should be thankful for the Johnson Amendment: it is a useful reminder from an unlikely source about the spiritual dangers that arise when sanctuaries are used as campaign offices.
Some of you may recall back in July 2017 when we featured University of Alabama religion professor’s Mike Altman‘s book Heathen, Hindoo, Hindu at The Author’s Corner. It is an excellent book from an excellent scholar of American religion.
Today on Twitter, Altman, in response to ongoing debates about whether or not Phillis Wheatley was an evangelical, wrote this:
Evangelical historians want Phillis Wheatley to be an evangelical for the same basic reasons that David Barton wants Thomas Jefferson to be an orthodox Christian.
— Michael J. Altman (@MichaelJAltman) December 21, 2018
I can’t speak for other historians who share my evangelical faith, but I call Wheatley an evangelical not because I want to claim her today, but because the word “evangelical” is the best way of understanding her in her 18th-century context. Most early American historians would agree. Here is J.L. Bell, the prolific historical blogger from Boston 1775 (and my response):
Christians & ex-Christians (evangelical, mainline, progressive, conservative) go crazy over this debate & claim the other side is being presentist/anachronistic. Early Am. historians can’t figure out what all the hand-wringing is all about. Of course Wheatley was evangelical. https://t.co/ENTsAcC9Wc
— John Fea (@JohnFea1) December 21, 2018
So, in other words, I argue that “evangelical” is a term we can use to describe Wheatley because I think it best explains her religious beliefs in the context of the world in which she lived. Just because the word “evangelical” has now become associated with other things (as I argue indirectly in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump) does not mean it is not useful in the eighteenth-century. If I were to quit evangelicalism, as I threatened to do after November 8, 2016, I would still say “evangelical” is the best word to describe Wheatley in her time. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.
This whole debate is part of the reason I wrote Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past. Some critics have said that the book errs too far to the historicist side, but it is precisely for the issues under debate here that I wanted to use this book to call attention to what Gordon Wood calls the “pastness of the past.” It takes discipline to understand the past on its own terms. This requires putting aside our contemporary views and trying our best to see the world from the perspective of those living in the past. As Sam Wineburg writes, it is our “psychological condition at rest” to find something useful in the past–something we can use to advance our agenda in the present. But mature historical thinking–to understand the foreignness of the past–is an “unnatural act.” As I argue in Why Study History, it can also be a transformative act.
Moreover, if Altman is right about “evangelical historians,” then why have so many of us (myself perhaps more than most) written extensively about the fact that Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and many other founders were not Christians? And why are we so critical of those, like David Barton, who argue that the founders were Christians? Wouldn’t we want to argue that the founders were evangelicals so they we can get them our side in the present?
And I call Wheatley an evangelical for the same reason I don’t call Jefferson (or Adams or Franklin) a Christian.
— John Fea (@JohnFea1) December 21, 2018